Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I was talking with a friend today and told her how, if I was ever in really good health, I wold like to run for school board. So in addition to adding that to my 10 year plan visualization list that are supposed to put my thoughts into the universe so they come true (not so sure about that, but low effort, so why not) I'd thought I'd start my campaign in this blog. I'm REALLY trying hard on this visualization thing after all.

Okay, so if I were to run for school board, here's my platform, along with maybe catchy slogans.

Quality. Honesty, Reality.

I think we're lacking in all three, not just in ACPS, but in the public schools in general. However, since I have (at least currently) no desire to take Arne Duncan's job, I'll stay local in my focus and ambitions.

What does quality mean? It means quality teaching and quality teachers. Nice little slogan, doesn't say much. So here's what it's trying to say. I've heard more than a few stories about teachers transferring out of "bad" schools to better schools, and even more about how hard it is to get a job in these "better" schools. Also, it seems there are a lot of new teachers and turnaround in the lower performing schools (often labeled bad). Why is this happening? Well, much of it has to do with the "reality" part of the issue, but a lot of the teachers wanting to be at the better schools is because, a) they're less challenging in a number of ways and b) because they can apply for open positions in other schools in the system. I remember one teacher who was quite good who quit because her position had been changed -- she was full time in one school, but because of, presumably, budget cuts and/or system needs, was told that she needed to split her time between two schools. She didn't like the change, so she left. I'm not scapegoating her -- she may have had very good reasons why splitting her time was too much for her - gas costs, stress, fear of change, whatever. However, what was notable about this was her anger at the school system changing her job. I hate when politicians badmouth teachers because their jobs are so easy, that private jobs are so much harder, but one this that you do have to put up with in almost all jobs (including teaching jobs in other districts) is that your boss, whoever that is, gets to decide what your work assignment is and where you do it

It seems to me that at ACPS, it's largely decided by the teachers where they teach and they are given little motivation to move, especially to a more challenging position. Another case, two teachers in my daughter's school, which is considered a "good" school, transferred from a "bad" school. So the bad school lost two experienced, presumably decent teachers. How does that help a struggling school get better?

When I chose to send my daughter to this "better" school, mainly because I didn't want her going to the local school that had a modified calendar, I was given the hairy eyeball for abandoning the local school, which was definitely struggling more than the one I chose. I felt guilty, and I expected to feel guilty, but I was doing what was appropriate for my child (see "honesty" and especially "reality"). If I was given such a hard time leaving the school, why aren't the teachers? And I don't want individual teachers to feel guilty or to suffer, but something is systemically wrong if teachers are allowed to jump off a sinking ship -- i.e. transfer jobs to an easier school Instead, a newer or mediocre teacher should have been given the slot. Not to share the suffering -- definitely not in favor of the either/or, your kids doesn't deserve as much attention because they come from a better economic background. No, to share the skill, expertise, and wisdom of teachers.

Yes, some of the reason that certain schools are "better" than others is they're dealing with kids who are less challenging -- more speak English, have parents with time and ability to be involved, don't have to deal with a stressful home situation. But I'd argue that part of the reason is because they have more skilled and experienced teachers.

This is not a blame the teachers rant. It is certainly not about judging teachers via tests. This is about helping teachers become the best possible teachers, system-wide.

So teachers should move schools because it's in the students' interest, not their own. If you're a teacher that is good enough to get hired in a "better" school, then you should be given incentives to stay put and help other teachers in your current school improve.

My proposal is the creation of Master Teachers. Teachers should be recognized, through panels of their peers and their principal (more on THAT later, too), as the best of the bunch. In exchange for agreeing to spend a year at another school, or even better, move permanently, and mentoring new teachers (perhaps in the same grade) they would get the designation of Master Teacher and a bonus. Also, there should be incentives for teachers to apply internally for jobs that are "hard to fill" -- i.e. yes, you'll get someone, but they're not as attractive or more stressful as other assignments. Okay, so I copied the idea from the State Dept, but it worked.

So bottom line, we need to identify the best teachers, reward them, and then send them to help other teachers, especially in the school facing the most challenges.

This took a lot more energy than I thought, I didn't even get to the other two elements of the platform. I guess I'll leave you hanging. Maybe I better start a video blog instead?

Shifting the blog - didn't know what it was for in the first place.

Three things I know I'm good at: thinking of ideas, worrying about the future, and talking to myself (hopefully, but not always, silently) Laying in bed dealing with cancer treatment leaves a lot of time for all three

I'm very hopeful that the cancer treatment will be successful and I will live for a good long time. However, as egotistical as it may be I need to share these thoughts. In the chance that I don't have enough time to share / act on these thoughts, or my chemo brain haze is actually permanent (and thus I often don't remember what I just thought about five minutes ago), I'm going to try to turn this blog into a place to air these thoughts, for posterity, for the record, for amusement of others. If you agree with me, great. If you don't, great (but please don't tell me nastily how much you don't agree -- I've got cancer, I don't need more aggravation). If you think these ideas are good but need some work, then I'm happy to discuss them with you.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lubavirch girls -- models or madwomen?

Despite the fact that I should be writing something useful, like a term paper, I've been inspired by a friend to return to my blog after a LONG hiatus. Let see how this turns out....

I recently finished reading Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Wellen Levine, a student of the well-known feminist psychology scholar Carol Gilligan. The is an participant-observer field study of teenage Lubavitcher girls. Not only is it a well done study from an academic viewpoint, but it challenges deeply held stereotypes (including my own) of Hasidic women.

Lubavitch, in short, is an ultra-Orthodox group with two goals -- too adhere as closely as possible to the strictest interpretation of the 613 Commandments and to convince all other Jews to do the same. Like other ultra-Orthodox Jews, Lubavitchers live according to strictly separated gender roles and women are barred from any public religious role. When thinking of the role of women in fundamentalist religions, it is normally quite repressive. From the outside, it seems the same for Lubavitcher girls.

However, reading the case studies of these girls, Levine reveals how strong, both in personality and thought, these girls are. They are uninhibited in their sense of self and proud of their personal and religious identity. They have a powerful "voice". Carol Gilligan coined the term, and her studies show how girls often lose this voice, this sense of identity and strength in self, as they enter adolescence. But these Lubavitcher girls Levine studied did not. Even at 17 on the cusp of getting married, they still had a voice.

At first, this amazed me, that despite such a constrictive society, these girls were strong, happy, and had chutzpah. Levine credits it with the strictly single-sex environment in which the girls live - the only contact with males are immediate family members. Otherwise, school, shul, and social life are all separate. Levine also believes that Hasidic theology of the power of every Jewish person to bring holiness into this world by everyday acts is empowering to these girls. But what about when they marry, when they are slaving over a Shabbat stove and popping out a new little Lubavitcher every year? Perhaps the voice disappears under a pile of dishes and diapers?

But then I thought of the Lubavitch women I have known. The first I knew well I met when we were both posted in Bogotá, Colombia -- me with the US Embassy, her with the Chabad House established to grab those wayward Colombian Jews. She adhered to all the rules and regulations of ultra-Orthodoxy. She wore skirts to her ankles and a wig (although the long curly locks of her sheitl made my hair look like the fake). She fought against taking a cab to the the hospital when she was in labor with her second son since it was Shabbat. She was able to cook for a crowd of 30 or more every Saturday afternoon. Yet she was fun, lively, intelligent, and most of all, chutzpadik. She had an amazing sense of humor and filled the room the moment she walked in. This was despite living far away from anything familiar or comfortable with two kids, a tiny apartment, and very little Spanish -- all at the tender age of 23. I thought she was an anomaly -- a rebel amongst Lubavitch women, perhaps a daredevil willing to leave, perhaps even run away, from her family

As I met other Lubavitcher women, I realized she was not. While my friend is a particularly lively personality, there were many others I met and connected with. They were smart, opinionated, and, yes, strong. I met many of them through sending my daughters to the Lubavitcher summer camp near me. This past summer, I spent more time with the counselors, all the same age of the girls Levine studied (perhaps she didn't need to move to Crown Heights for a year, she could have just gone to camp....) And yes, they were indeed rowdy, funny, boisterous, and strong.

So... this is the part where we get back to me (since blog posts are an ego trip after all). Do I want to send my girls back to the Lubavitcher camp? Before my older one reached the age of 8, it wasn't a difficult choice. The boys and girls were together and there wasn't much indoctrination except learning a few songs calling for Moshiach Now! (which in a three year old's lisp, is quite hilarious to listen to). But at 3rd grade, the boys and girls are separated, the girls are encouraged to wear skirts and have more "female oriented" activities like cooking. I'm proud of my older daughter's interest in science, sports, math, and other non-girly things (as well as plenty of girly things) and half of her fiends are boys. I didn't think it healthy for her to be separated by her gender, which to me, implied a fear of sexuality inappropriate in an 8 year old, especially my one who didn't know what "sexy" meant, and told me that she didn't care to know.

But now, I am contemplating sending her and her younger sister back. At first, it was just a a matter of money and convenience -- the Chabad camp is super-cheap (what can I say, I'm willing to trade of brainwashing for saving bucks?) and is still open when all the other camps have closed up shop in August. But now, I've read this book and I'm reminded of two things. One, is these entertaining, strong Orthodox women I've know. But two, is the time I wasted while at Barnard College -- a single sex institution (albeit in a coed university) that I left after two years, partially because it was single sex. It was too late for me -- I had already lost my voice and cared more about who the man in my life was than who I was.

I've always said that I'm in favor of single sex schools -- middle schools, that is. I don't think that's coming to my city any time soon, and the private ones are too expensive and snotty. Perhaps sending my daughter to the single sex environment of a camp isn't a bad thing. As long as it is empowering, not overly feminizing. I thought that was the problem with the way Lubavitcher women thought and treated their girls. But now I wonder if my daughter might end up all the stronger for spending some time with these females. They're strong, they're proud, and they have a nice loud, Jewish voice. Right now, so does my daughter and I don't want her to lose it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

So we live in a Jewish country after all.

Okay, so my younger daughter, in the middle of the night, stood up, pulled of her diaper, and peed all over her crib -- is this her version of being interested in potty training -- got me and my husband up at 3 a.m., so the middle of the night blog is back. But I digress (can you begin a topic with a digression, or is the rest of the post a digression... hummmm.....)

So, Rosh Hashanah is a American holiday? I certainly have had some pretty strident arguments that Christmas is not an American holiday, but never had to argue for or against the High Holidays. But I agree with Jon Stewart -- what the heck was Congress doing taking off Rosh Hashanah? Two points on this one:

1. Like generations of American Jews before her, my daughter won't get a perfect attendance record because she's a practicing Jew, no matter how healthy she is this year. No, her public school doesn't close for Rosh Hashanah, but Congress, about five miles down the street did. Can Jim Moran, my Representative, still get a good attendance record? Was he in shul, blaming the Jews for the war in Iraq to his neighbor during the Amidah?

2. Well, if the anti-Semites and general small minded thought that Jews controlled the banking industry, they've got proof now! If Wall Street (full of them Jews), being rescued by Congress (with its banking committee headed by a Jew) can take a day off from this end-of-the-world crisis to celebrate the birth of the world, well, it must be because The Jews got it all covered anyway.

But really, did they have to delay meeting until after two days of Rosh Hashanah? You know, there are synagogues in Washington. Barney, Joe, Russ, and anyone else, Jewish or honorary Jew, could drop into one of our many Beth Els, Emmanuels, and and other Hebrew Congregations, have a quick daven, even a little nosh at the oneg, and still be in for deliberation by 1:30 or so (a respectable time to show up on the House floor). Rosh Hashanah isn't even a holy day with full prohibitions of work, it's only a Festival. They could drive back to Congress!!!

But if it's that important that the corridors of power must be shut down for a Jewish holiday, then at least give my kid the day off school, too. Next year, the holidays are on the weekend, but come 5770 (2010), it better be official, or I'm taking off Ash Wednesday and Good Friday!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Are we as stupid as they think we are?

Putting Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket was an obvious ploy to increase John McCain's support from two specific groups: the religious right and women. The religious right has already shown it cares more about symbols and substance -- they were a large force in the reelection of George W. Bush despite the fact that his administration had done nothing significant in their issue areas in the first term Just saying that he was against choice, separation of church and state,
etc. was enough for them to support him for re-election based on superficial, and insubstantial, reasons. They now support McCain despite proven hostility to the religious right. They are easily bought off.

But are women as naive as this, too? Should we support Sarah Palin just because she's a woman? Sadly, it seems that's enough for some women, given the poll numbers showing a marked increase in white women supporting the GOP ticket. Why are we falling for this transparent
ploy? What will Sarah Palin do for women? Give us reproductive choice (which she and her daughter have the privilege to exercise), promote equality in pay (never said anything about that), fight for good public education for all children beyond just test scores (no, vouchers and charter schools are more important than improving the schools most children go to), pushing for family friendly policies at work? -- doesn't matter to her since she has two sets of grandparents living near by to care for her kids.

When I think back to the women who fought for universal suffrage, I'm sad to say that maybe their critics were right -- women aren't smart enough to vote. Could this be true -- are we can only understand the superficial? Or do we vote thoughtfully, caring not so much for who is running that what they stand for. As women, we care for others -- our family, our community, etc. But should we support a woman who advocates policies that don't support the way we do -- caring for the needy, the young, the vulnerable?

We women are better than this, aren't we?

Sunday, April 20, 2008


While cleaning my kitchen tonight, after the onslaught of various relatives, including a few little slobs under four feet, I had a random, yet profound thought.

I hate when kids wear camouflage clothes. First off, children are violent and destructive enough, we don't need to encourage them to emulate soldiers. (Yes, soldiers have other admirable quality -- obedience, discipline, loyalty -- but as if green splotches would inspire that in a kid!) Additionally, camouflage is meant to disguise the wearer, so they can't be seen by others. Now this is a great idea -- as I know that if my children are hiding from me, they certainly aren't doing something I wouldn't want them to do.

So I refuse to buy anything that looks even slightly camouflage-ish for my girls. Of course, my mother arrives a few days ago, with bundles of clothing in hand for the girls, carefully culled from the racks of TJ Maxx. They're all adorable, except the nightgown for the older one. It's pink, yes, it has ruffles, yes, it even has an Supergirl "S". This should be empowering for my daughter -- she either would think she looks like a princess (ruffles, pink) or a superhero. But, alas, it is pink CAMOUFLAGE! What's the message here? Supergirl is a soldier, hiding out in the jungle, knocking out hostiles with her AK-47, wrist ruffles flying!

Okay, so, established, I don't like camouflage. But then, cleaning the kitchen, I thought, why are stoves white or stainless steel? Here am I, scraping burnt egg and such off the top of my white stove. I want a camouflage stove! I like green (although maybe Dessert Storm tan might be a bit more soothing on the eyes) and I hate cleaning. Why stop with a camo stove? How about a camo floor, countertops, even sink? I wouldn't have to clean the kitchen until it started smelling or crunched underfoot, and even then, that would only add to the jungle atmosphere. Maybe I'd add some large ferns to hide the dirty dishes in the sink, too.

Camouflage in the kitchen doesn't work everywhere. The outside of the fridge, yes, the inside, definitely not. Imagine how much more often you'd hear the petulant whine "I can't find it, can you come and find it for me" (that's my husband, my girls just yell "Mamaaaaa!")

But I propose that the next great decorating movement not be a return to avocado and orange a la 1970s, nor Emeril worthy stainless steel industrial size appliances that look more like garbage trucks. Let's see Elle Decor and Dominio and the others feature really useful, cutting edge kitchen style -- camouflage. Overwhelmed, stressed out moms will happily pull out their credit cards.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why early parenthood is like college

Since I teach undergraduates, I spend much time envying their freedom, self-centerdness, and opportunity to swim, and sometimes drown, in knowledge. Oh, to be back in those days, living in a dorm room (no mortgage, no nagging repairs, minimal cleaning), going out most nights, being in close proximity of friends, and again, all the learning, the brain growing, the becoming. But I can't fool myself into glowing memories of halcyon days,:, one look at my students' faces, and I remember I how really felt -- stressed, anxious, impatient, and as if I were on a roller coaster where the highs and lows were of dire consequence. Only now, when the excitement and freedom of that period is long gone, do I realize how much I had, how much more I could have enjoyed instead of stressing out.

And so, it seems, I will feel a couple of years from now. Right now, I am sleep-deprived, stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed by all that must be done. My moods swing from delight to devastation. I'm not back in college (although I am trying to get a PhD, but more on that later....) I'm an early parent, with two young girls. And I am SO STRESSED!!!!! I'm on a roller-coaster again, thrilled with my child's latest achievement, depressed at the piles of bills, laughing at silly moments, pissed off at my husband -- all in the space of a few hours. I didn't realize, however, how similar this time is to college years until I heard my students going on about how STRESSED they are.

I thought to myself "you have no idea," and, in fact, they don't. Not that life can't get more stressful, it can get way more stressful in ways I can only imagine in my most anxious moments. But what I realized is that, I have no idea, either. These are the halcyon days, too, but I'm too overwhelmed by the challenge of it all to realize the joy I experience at the same time. Like college, the moments of pleasure seem compressed between lack of sleep, competing demands, and self-doubt. Now, it's a child (or children) who keep me awake past midnight. I juggle competing demands on my time, and wonder if I'm screwing it all up anywaay. I know that I have wonderful children, that they are an absolute joy, but I can't seem to let myself just sit back and savor the moment of their early childhood because I feel too pressured by all that is demanded of me.

When I ask my mother "what did you do about X?" when my brother and I were this age, she often says, "I don't know, we were too busy to worry about things like that." She was also too busy to remember many of the little, cute, day to day precious events. As she says "we didn't have any choice". That's how I feel, but I realize I do have a choice. It's not the automatic choice, to respond to the pressures the best I can, batting away incoming meteors before they shatter the very fragile order of our lives, but maybe I should make sure that when I'm not in the very midst of these challenges, I'm in the midst of savoring this short period of my life.

Yesterday, I had way too much to do (as always). The house was a mess, there were bills to pay (with the concurrent stress of knowing we couldn't pay them), books for both the PhD class I'm taking and the undergraduate class I'm teaching were whining to be read (yes, when you have a book that must be read but won't be enjoyed, it seems to whine on, doesn't it?) I had the impulse to plop Maisy in front of a Teletubbies video, again. (She's watched the video so often that she's as good as naming the four Teletubbies as speaking the name of her sister). But instead, I let her climb up the stairs, something that I couldn't mutlitask -- if I wanted my child in one piece, all my attention had to devoted to that little tushie struggling upwards. So I did, and I was rewarded with real pleasure, real uninterrupted joy (I say this as I type and same child is standing up, saying "Mama" and demanding attention -- we always are making these choices....) But yesterday, I didn't try to do, I just watched. I watched as Maisy climbed each stair, then would turn around, grin at me, waive her left hand. and say "bye-bye". I will cherish those five minutes forever (and remember them well when, fifteen years later, she says "bye-bye" while waving car keys to at me.)

The moments to cherish aren't always as clear, or as pleasurable, as this. Lillie will be home from school soon, demanding my undivided attention. Of course, there is no way I can give it to her, with a cute, competing little sister demanding the same. In fact, I'd much rather plop both of them in front of the TV and do my work, which is whining all the more noisily in my head since I've done no academic work since yesterday afternoon. But it's not just that, Lillie is more like a termpaper than just hanging around a dorm, as Maisy seems to be at the moment. Being with Lillie takes work -- not just being there, but actually engaging, thinking, being challenged. The pleasure is not so obvious, it may not even be felt for a long time, if ever; But, if I try to If I ignore her demands, as my students often ignore their assignments, I lose out. I won't get nearly as much from being her mother. Today, I regret that I didn't write a thesis, didn't get an internship. It just seemed too demanding, too unecessary, and all too easy to avoid. Tomorrow, will I regret playing Fairies with Lillie? I absolutely will. So I need to figure out a way to take the time, to find the pleasure in hearing Lillie say over and over, "pretend I'm Tinkerbell and you're Fira" or "pretend I'm Harry Potter and you're Hermione" or (ugh!) "play The American Girl Card Game with me!" It might seem pretty onerous right now, but later on, I'll regret I didn't realize how much I was denying myself by avoiding less pleasurable activitie3s.

Soon enough, I'll only have memories and poor second chances. Doing a masters was not nearly as life-illuminating as my undergraduate studies, and I doubt my PhD study will be much different. And certainly, being a grandparent will be a joy, but it will never equal the moments spent engaging with my young girls. So I'll end here, and go blow bubbles with Maisy.